When Missouri's duck hunters hear about jump-shooting opportunities, those in the know ask only "Where?" and "How high?"
Jump-shooting is generally seen as a when-all-else-fails method by most waterfowlers, or as an easy way for the young or inexperienced to go out without much gear and bag themselves a duck or two. After all, you just find some ducks, walk up on them and shoot them after you flush them off the water - right?
Well . . . it can be that easy - but as in most sorts of hunting, you'll be more successful and have more fun if you know some simple tips and tricks. There's also a bonus in knowing your jump-shooting areas well. When, in the season's last weeks, most ponds and conservation area waters, and even bays of reservoirs, freeze solid, the ducks will be concentrated on smaller creeks and rivers, and during the ice and cold, those familiar with these areas are often treated to some of the most rewarding action of the year. The best way that I know of for probing these smaller waterways is the jump-shooting approach.
JUMP-SHOOTING METHODS The first of the two basic methods of jump-shooting, "the Sneak," involves spotting ducks and trying to get close enough to get a shot. The second, in which you move through areas that usually hold ducks, or look as if they might, and take what shots you can, is "the Milk Run." I usually follow the latter procedure, because I jump-shoot along creeks and smaller river corridors most of the time. Either technique can be done by walking in, wading, or hunting from a small boat; sometimes you can do all three in one day. But what works best, and where?
Small ponds can keep ducks on them until ice-up, and some spring fed ponds stay ice-free throughout the season. The jump-shooter's approach to a pond provides a perfect illustration of the Sneak: You spot ducks on a pond and then plan a route on which to walk up - usually from the dam side - without the ducks seeing you.
If there's no cover that you can easily sidle up to, try this: Have a partner hide downwind on the side to which you'll flush the ducks to when you walk up. If garbed in good camo, your accomplice should get a chance for a passing shot. Ducks sometimes prefer one pond to another for no apparent reason, so if you can find several ponds near each other, you can hop from one to the other, thus bettering your odds of success; if you like, switch roles at every pond. You can fill a day this way.
Small creeks are best for the Milk Run. Simply walk the banks, carefully scanning the water ahead. Ducks favor slack pools out of the wind; a little sun on the water, and it's the perfect duck hangout. Sometimes you'll see ducks, sometimes just the ripples made by their swimming. Walk wide of a pool and come up at the right spot, and you'll often get close shots.
Jump-shooting isn't for everyone, but it can be a great alternative technique when long hours in the blind aren't paying off. Photo by Mike Marsh
One trick I've used when hunting at smaller creeks involves positioning a buddy a half-mile downstream of me; that done, we slowly walk toward each other. If I get a shot, and ducks that I flush but don't shoot are headed his way, I signal this to him with one loud blast on a coach's whistle; if I jump ducks ahead of me and have no shot, I signal with another blast on the whistle; if I get a shot, but the ducks flare back and fly away from us, no signal is given. This is easy to remember: no whistle, no ducks.
This type of hunting gets intense when you have shots not only at ducks that you jump but also at ducks your partner flushes down the stream corridor toward you. I've used this method with a buddy who loves to hunt ducks but gets bored in a blind. He loves it!
Jump-shooting from a johnboat, canoe, kayak, or poke boat is a great way to cover a lot of water. Smaller creeks do run low in the winter, however, and dragging a loaded boat over downed trees and gravel all day is no fun, so to make sure that there's enough water, scout ahead.
If you have enough water to float, some basic rules apply. If you use a two-person boat, the one in the front hunts and the one in the back controls the craft. You may be able to sneak up on ducks using only the current, but some paddling is usually needed. When you float into a pool in which ducks are present, you simply try to get as close as possible before the birds realize that something is wrong. Stay close to the inside bend of the creek, and try to paddle as little as possible. Agree ahead of time on how you'll alternate positions in the boat - every duck bagged, every 45 minutes, etc. Some hunters attach some camouflage material to the front of the boat to help disguise it, but sitting very still works just as well, and doesn't interfere with shooting.
In case you get dunked, carry a dry bag with a change of clothes. Mid-December's 10-degree weather is no time to be four miles from a vehicle and sopping wet. If you float alone, always tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.
GUNS AND DOGS Your choice of a shotgun for jump-shooting is a personal thing. I use a light 20-gauge shotgun when I wade and walk smaller creeks. Since most of my shots are at 25 yards or less, the smaller gauge does just fine here. When I float, the same 12-gauge shotgun that I use when hunting out of a blind comes along. The extra weight doesn't matter when the canoe is carrying it, and most shots taken while floating tend to be longer than those I get when wading. Steel shot works fine for the 12 gauge; use No. 2s or No. 3s - whichever works best in your gun. I use bismuth 3-inch No. 5s for the 20, and I really like them. But I have used steel No. 4s in the past and have no complaints. If you're serious, you'll pattern your shotgun with the loads you plan on using.
Your shots at birds jumped off the water will be a lot like the fast shots common to upland hunting for pheasants and quail. You'll find that shooting sporting clays in the off season will increase your ratio of shots to ducks bagged.
To decide if you need to take your trusty retriever with you on your jump-shooting trips, think about these things: Are you careful enough to shoot at ducks so that they don't land in a pond or deep section of river that's out of wading reach? Do you float and jump-shoot where you can retrieve every duck from your boat, or do you hunt only small creeks from which it's easy to retrieve your own ducks? If you answered "yes" to all of the above, you can probably get by without a dog.
But do you hunt along bigger streams? Do you jump-shoot ponds, and take any shot that presents itself? Most important, does your retriever mind well, and not run ahead, scaring ducks off before you get a shot? If your answers here are "yes," take the retriever along.
I don't think that any dog does well out of smaller duck boats, except on still water. I don't take mine float-hunting, because I can easily retrieve my own ducks by simply paddling over to them. Nor would I take my yellow Lab with me if I wanted to jump-shoot on public land during firearms deer season. I don't think she looks like a deer - but I'm not too sure of anyone else's eyesight!
DETAILS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE Attending to some little details can make jump-shooting more productive and enjoyable. For instance, a sling for your shotgun: It helps by easing the load if you have to hike any distance or need both hands to climb a creek bank; it's also handy if you need to answer the call of nature and would prefer not to set the gun down in the mud. I use a slip-over sling that I take off when I'm actually hunting.
A small daypack is helpful for toting your lunch, map, shells, compass, and first-aid kit, and for carrying ducks out. Make sure the straps don't interfere with a proper gun mount on your shoulder.
I like hip waders for hunting my favorite small creeks and for getting in and out of a canoe when I'm floating, but chest-high waders are better if you aren't sure of the water's depth, and for retrieving your ducks. I always wear chest waders when I scout a new area. In the case of either hip or chest waders, canvas or rubber will hold up better to rigors of jump-shooting. Neoprene, though more comfortable, tears easily when you crash through thorns and brush.
JUMP-SHOOTING HOTSPOTS The Show Me State is blessed with public land suitable for almost any sort of hunting, jump-shooting not excepted. Here are some public areas at which I've had success in the past - many times, without ever seeing any other humans, let alone fellow waterfowlers.
Bushwhacker Lake CA Sited in Vernon County, this conservation area is home to both Bushwhacker and Willow lakes. The bays and upper ends of these lakes provide some jump-shooting, but during wet years, it's Drywood Creek that gets my attention. Ducks will rest on many of this small stream's little pools long after most ponds and small lakes have iced over.
August A. Busch Jr. Memorial Wetlands At Four Rivers CA This area on the border of Vernon and Bates counties used to be known simply as Four Rivers CA. After a generous contribution, this is now a 13,000-plus-acre area through which flow Muddy Creek and the Marmaton, Marais des Cygnes and Little Osage rivers; all converge to form the Osage River. There are many ponds and backwater wetlands as well as smaller creeks in this area. The bigger rivers here often have high, muddy banks; they're great for floating by canoe. There's so much land in this area that I haven't explored it all, so there are probably hotspots I don't know about yet!
Stockton Lake Many of the smaller creeks that flow into Stockton Lake will harbor ducks at one time or another. A lot of these areas are too deep for any other method besides floating, but some, like Maze and Sons creeks, can be waded and floated with considerable success. If you want to float, Turnback Creek and the Sac River are great for floating from access points upstream to the lake itself to take out. Fiddlers Ford access on Turnback Creek, just a few miles from Greenfield, provides easy access for a great half-day's jump-shooting float to Stockton Lake. Prospects around the lake are most promising when the bays have frozen over or hunting pressure has spooked the ducks into seeking out quieter places like creek arms in which to rest.
Robert E. Talbot CA The Spring River runs through the southern part of this 4,000-acre CA, and two small creeks flow into the river within the borders of the area. In recent years, the bottomland near the creeks and river has been used for growing corn, and much of the crop is left standing after harvest. That has attracted all kinds of wildlife, including ducks. If you check this area out, don't be surprised if you run into other people, as I have seen more hunters here than in other areas - which just shows how many ducks frequent these waterways. But early in the season, when most hunters are hunkered down in their favorite blinds, you might have the place to yourself. The creeks and river here are easy to manage if you're wearing chest waders (after you really know the area, you can get by with hippers).
Coon Island CA This 3,000-acre area in Butler County has the Black River and one of the many Boot Heel drainage ditches, Swift Ditch, flowing through it. The Black is a pretty big waterway at this point, but there are also many backwaters and small sloughs that hold ducks, as do the ditch areas. Consequently, it pays to scout this out before you grab the shotgun and go. You can walk a long way though this area before you start to figure out where the ducks are, and the property isn't on both sides of the river throughout the six-mile length of the area. Getting to some spots will force you to return to your starting point - unless you want to swim for it!
Otter Slough CA Lying in the shadow of Crowley's Ridge, this 4,800-acre area straddles a section of the St. Francis River and offers 250-acre Otter Lake as well as many of the numerous Missouri Boot Heel areas of wetland/oxbow lake features and ditches. As with Coon Island CA, this area's duck numbers, benefit from its proximity to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and Clearwater Lake. During some seasons, it seems as if all the ducks in the Boot Heel are here, but other years' hunts are a bust. Southern Missouri hunters need for it to get cold enough in parts northward to push the birds south. If that happens, you might see large numbers spilling over from Mingo. While not as pretty as rocky Ozark streams, the ditches offer some of the best hunting here if the water level is right.
CONCLUSION I love to see a group of mallards set their wings coming into the decoys as much as any waterfowler does, but many would prefer not to hunt at all if they can't shoot decoying ducks out of their best blinds. Like dry-fly trout anglers, most of these guys are purists, and as such, wouldn't ever think of jump-shooting. So when you're out with these guys, never get out of the blind and try to sneak up on those ducks across the bay or down the river from you; in fact, don't even ask about it - unless you want to be banned from the duck club.
But if you aren't afraid of bucking convention and want to avoid chaining yourself all day to an unproductive blind or fighting the crowds and hassle of the "poor line" at the big CAs, give jump-shooting a try. Just don't tell the purists how you got your limit!
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